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Recently, historians of the international system have called into question the significance of the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648 as the moment when the international system formed. One of their primary arguments is that the non-intervention norm typically associated with Westphalian notions of sovereignty developed much later. This paper will examine the early 17th-century debates over the right of the Pope to depose monarchs in the defense of spiritual matters. I read Part III and Part IV of Hobbes’ Leviathan in its intellectual context to see how his theory of sovereignty was partially developed to support a theory of non-intervention. This reading leads to two important contributions to current political science debates. First, it refutes the growing consensus that non-intervention developed as an aspect of sovereignty only in the late 18th and early 19th century. Second, the paper addresses current attempts to assert a right of humanitarian intervention. By exploring similarities between these recent debates and those between Bellarmine and Hobbes in the 17th century, I offer a fresh perspective on what is at stake in current claims to international community.
As we saw in Chapter 1, despite numerous criticisms that the concept of sovereignty continues to face, it persists as an organizing concept in our political language. What I hope to do in this chapter is demonstrate that one of the reasons for its consistent grip on our political language and imagination is its close association with the problem of epistemological skepticism. I will do this by studying how a new program of state sovereignty was first articulated in the political theories of seventeenth-century European political theorists in response to a set of problematizations of the way in which the conduct of individuals was being governed. As James Tully, Richard Tuck and Richard Popkin have observed, one of the triggers of this problematization of government was the widespread distribution of skeptical arguments in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century intellectual circles. This dispersion of skeptical ideas called into question regimes of knowledge that had informed the traditional practices of churches, political apparatuses and universities.
A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.
A picture holds the study of politics captive. It is a picture of politics organized into sovereign states. Inside, the state’s sovereign authority maintains order. Outside of the state the absence of sovereign authority produces anarchy. To be sure, this is a highly abstract and idealized picture. Virtually no political scientist would subscribe to this simplified picture. Many political scientists have argued that this picture of politics does not accurately reflect our political reality, or that the picture is unjust and should be replaced with a different type of political order. Yet, what is revealing about this picture is that despite numerous attempts to move beyond sovereignty or re-imagine political community, this picture of political order continues to set the terms of political discourse. It is the image of political order that detractors rail against. It is also the image of politics that its defenders insist is the universal, necessary, and obligatory way of organizing political life. So, when I say that a picture holds political science captive, what I mean is this: scholars of politics remain captivated by this picture of politics because it continues to set the terms according to which we debate our political ontology. Scholars have proposed hundreds of alternative ways of organizing political life. Yet these proposals are offered in opposition to this picture. So, even those who wish to think about political order in a different way continue to be held captive by this picture of politics.
I would like to conclude by returning to where I began, with Wittgenstein. As I have argued throughout this book, the reason that scholars are captivated by sovereignty is that our theories of politics are often articulated to respond to a perceived threat of skepticism. Skeptical arguments challenge knowledge claims by questioning the validity of the criteria of that knowledge claim. In attacking the validity of a specific knowledge claim, the skeptic hopes to call the validity of all possible knowledge claims into doubt. Skeptical arguments are difficult to respond to, because they challenge the legitimacy of criteria. Criteria are the specifications a person or group establish in order to judge whether something has a particular status. In the case of extreme skepticism, no criteria are sufficient. As we saw in Part I of this book, Hobbes and Spinoza were concerned that there were no ethical, epistemic or religious foundations that could provide a sufficient basis with which to judge the validity of knowledge claims. Their fear was that epistemic, ethical and religious skepticism would lead to moral and social upheaval, as people could not come to consensus about what was true and false or right and wrong.
The previous two chapters have explored two varieties of skepticism – epistemic and ethical – to which Hobbes and Spinoza’s theories of sovereignty respond. This chapter will consider a third variety of skepticism: religious skepticism. In many ways religious skepticism was a more fundamental political problem to Hobbes and Spinoza’s readers than either of the first two varieties of skepticism. Hobbes wrote the majority of his political writings in response to the English Civil War – a conflict that was triggered in large part due to disputes over the relationship between the Crown and the practice of religion. Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue at the age of twenty under suspicion of being an atheist. Later in his life, the Dutch Republic collapsed partly as a result of political tumult caused by the clashes between the Remonstrants – a liberal Dutch Calvinist sect that favoured republicanism and toleration – and the Calvinist Fundamentalist supporters of Gisbertus Voetius.
In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king.
If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.
Political theorists have critiqued the concept of sovereignty since Jean Bodin first articulated it. Over the last 130 years, political theorists’ interest in the concept of sovereignty has come in four waves: in the 1890s, in the 1930s, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and from the 1990s to the present. The latest wave of interest is the most sustained of the four, lasting more than eighteen years, and it has produced more publications. WorldCat lists more than twenty publications for every year in the twenty-first century, whereas the high-mark prior to 1991 was four publications in 1978 and 1931. The proliferation of interest in sovereignty is significant. The most recent wave of sovereignty scholarship has focused on two issues.
The received value of Names imposed for Signification of things, was changed into Arbitrary: For inconsiderate Boldness, was counted true-hearted Manliness; provident Deliberation, a handsome Fear; Modesty, the Cloak of Cowardice; to be wise in everything, to be lazy in everything. A furious suddenness was reputed a point of Valour. To re-advise for the better Security, was held for a fair Pretext of Tergiversation. He that was fierce, was always trusty; and he that contraried such a one, was suspected. He that did insidiate, if it took, was a wise Man; but he that could not smell out a Trap laid, a more dangerous Man than he: But he that had been so provident as not to need to do the one or the other, was said to be a dissolver of Society, and one that stood in fear of his Adversary. In brief, he that could out-strip another in the doing of an evil Act, or that could perswade another thereto, that never meant it, was commended.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War as translated by Thomas Hobbes
The epigraph to this chapter comes from Thomas Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. The passage is a famous one, describing the fallout of the civil war on Corcyra. Thucydides notes that the significance of this episode in the Peloponnesian War was that “it was in Corcyra that there occurred the first examples of the breakdown of law and order.”
In the previous two chapters I explored how to overcome the impasse presented by the normative critiques of sovereignty raised by Arendt, Foucault, Agamben, and Hardt and Negri. All five of these thinkers argue that sovereignty creates an unjust structure of domination. But, as we saw in the introduction, they are unable to present a clear non-sovereign alternative to political order. Chapters 2 through 4 demonstrated that the persistence of sovereignty in political thought is due to its utility in combating varieties of skepticism and its attendant political problems. In Chapters 5 and 6 I argued that the language as a form of life approach to philosophy developed by Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell provided an alternative response to skepticism that did not require a sovereign. In this chapter I return my attention to the architectonic critiques of sovereignty that I discussed in Chapter 1. These critiques of sovereignty have primarily developed in the discipline of international relations theory. Scholars from a variety of different theoretical perspectives have become dissatisfied with the concept of sovereignty for architectonic reasons. They believe that a political order grounded in the sovereignty of the state is insufficient to deal with a variety of pressing problems ranging from global climate change, to global economic inequality, to new modes of violence. As we saw in Chapter 1, a variety of alternative models have been proposed to deal with these problems, yet they tend to recreate the model of state sovereignty in one form or another.
As we saw at the end of Chapter 4, skepticism is a political problem because it renders all value judgments uncertain. In the seventeenth century, value judgments tended to focus upon questions of religion. Religions were the primary institutions that guided people’s lives. As such, disputes over which religion individuals should follow were also disputes about values in many other areas of their lives. While it has become fashionable in academic circles to argue that we now live in a secular age, and that non-religious grounds now provide the basis for our social and political values, I would argue that the real contemporary condition is more a proliferation of possible grounds for value claims – including religion, tradition, and cultural identity – than the displacement of religion by rational grounds according to which we make our value judgments. As such, the question that Hobbes and Spinoza grappled with – how do we know which religion offers the correct grounds for our value judgments and practices? – has broadened into the more general question of what – if anything – can serve as the ultimate ground for our values? As I discussed in Chapter 4, Hobbes and Spinoza believed that sovereignty resolves this problem by replacing the finality of sovereign authority for the certainty that comes from confidence and consensus in judgments. In Chapter 3 I discussed how a similar concern about the dangers of ethical skepticism prompted Hobbes and Spinoza to make the sovereign the final arbiter in ethical disputes. Given the argument that I pursued in Chapter 5 – namely that a particular picture of how language operates leads to the power of skeptical arguments, and that an understanding of language as embedded in our form of life can free us from this captivity – how can this understanding of language as a form of life help us imagine alternative bases for political values that do not fall prey to ethical and value skepticism? This question is all the more pressing, given that Wittgensteinian philosophy is often accused of paving the way for ethical relativism.